You hear some fascinating stories circulating at a conference like EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year: how one person’s first round of funding came from a loan shark, complete with the threat to break his knees. How another used male actors to pose as team members on funding pitches, because she found they made the men she was pitching to more comfortable (she always came clean before signing the dotted line).
And one of the questions I am frequently asked at conferences like this is: “What do you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?”
After meeting some amazing entrepreneurs and learning about others, here on my reflections on the qualities they share.
Five qualities of successful entrepreneurs:
- Passion and focus: The people I met had drive and a strong belief that they could shape their own destinies. Though the businesses ranged from marine engineering and toys to pharmaceuticals, one quality rang true: they were motivated by strong ideas about how to make things better — either for themselves, for consumers or for society.
- Tenacity: You know those people who just don’t give up? (If it’s your children, take comfort in the fact that they may grow up to be successful entrepreneurs). Our winner from the Philippines, Nico Jose Nolledo, is a great example of this. After gaining a business degree, the only job he could get (post the Asian currency crisis) was assistant manager at KFC. But he didn’t give up. He founded his first tech company in 1999, and founded Xurpas (which focuses on mobile content) in 2001 with just US$1,300. Xurpas went straight to initial public offering (IPO) in 2014, and is now South East Asia’s largest consumer technology company by market capitalization, worth PHP28.8b (US$620m).
- Both a non-conformist and a team player: Though these may seem contradictory, successful entrepreneurs are both. It takes an outsider’s eye to spot niches and gaps in the market. But you also have to be able to inspire people and build strong teams. The initial months of a startup are incredibly demanding – if your people aren’t 100 percent with you, giving their absolute all, you won’t succeed.
- Opportunistic mindset: Entrepreneurial leaders see opportunity where others see disruption and chaos. This is exemplified by our winner, Manny Stul, Chairman and co-CEO of Moose Enterprises, who increased sales by 7200 percent in just 15 years. But it wasn’t a smooth ride upward. Success came after being confronted with one of the largest toy recalls in history. Ignoring advice to declare bankruptcy, he reached approvals with local and international governments, signed ongoing trade agreements with each and every distributor around the globe, and ensured there were no staff layoffs. All this helped the business not only to survive but thrive. Stul was always determined that Australia would be a starting point to global success — and Moose Toys is now the fourth largest toy company in Australia and the sixth largest in the US.
- Not afraid of risk and failure: As José Neves, CEO of luxury fashion retailer Farfetch says, “The biggest risk is not to take risks at all. In a world that is constantly changing, the biggest risk is to stand still.” One of our winners from the US, Jayschree Ullal, would certainly echo this. Back in 2008, when she became president and CEO of Arista Networks, the vision was to build a company led by engineers to take on established tech giants. The reality was that Arista had no revenues and under 50 employees when she took the post. Under Ullal’s tenure, alongside Chairman Andreas Bechtolsheim, Arista has grown into a billion-dollar business in revenue.
What else you need: timing, money and networks
While you are unlikely to succeed without these characteristics, it takes more than the right personality. We all know people chock-full of ideas that never turn them into businesses. Why not? They’re usually lacking one of these factors: timing, money and the right networks.
Though funding remains a top barrier for startups, it is interesting to see how this has changed. I get the sense that the days of putting up your entire savings (and frequently your house) to fund a business are gone. There are so many more options for finance now, such as crowdfunding, angel investors and venture capital (though not in every market, as evidenced by the loan shark).
Personally, I believe that these entrepreneurial skills will be increasingly important in a future where robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and technology will play a greater role. And large organizations will need to learn to rediscover their inner entrepreneur if they want to succeed in this new environment.